On October 2nd, Short Books published Velkom to Inklandt, a seekventz of 30 poems I’ve written phonetically in the borrowed voice of my German Jewish grandmother, who came to live in London in 1938.
My grandparents were rescued by a scientist called A.V. Hill , instigator of the Council for Academic Refugees, which saved over 900 German Jewish scientists. (It still exists, I was touched to read with a wonderful poet and university lecturer from Baghdad, Nadia Fayidh Mohammed, who’d arrived here two years ago via the same organisation.)
I’ve changed/fictionalised all the family names throughout the poems. My late father, who saw the beginning of this project, felt reassured by this idea. This also freed me up to create a voice that could play with the facts and the character, and elasticate and blur the narratives around them.
It was a total bonus and surprise that Short Books wanted to publish this work, they have not published much poetry before and as they are a small company they need to be careful about what books they can take on. They have a great track record on biography and other practical books…
They came across the poems via my visual art – Aurea Carpenter, one of the partners, had followed her nose and eye to my studio, having liked some drawings I’d hung in the window of the LRB Book Shop last National Poetry Day.
She made her way to South London and I left her to rummage in the plan chest and browser while I made us lunch. What IS this? She asked, having found one of my enormous photocopied Inklisch poems draped over a canvas. I use the giant photocopies at readings so people can get the phonetics….
I explained and she said: Would you read it to me? Of course I refused. (Nonsenz Reeter! I LUFF reading zem! If ennyvun asks me to, reet zem I must!) Have you any more? Would you email some to me?
Aurea went off with a drawing about Balzac and screen prints for her daughter and niece… I emailed her a couple of Inklisch poems and she wrote back saying: our youngest employee, William, is the best at reading them aloud. That sounds like a nice place to work, I thought.
About a month later we arranged to meet again as Aurea needed a different screen print. We were chatting about books and suddenly she said: could WE publish your granny poems? Wow! Of course! I said. What pictures would you do to go with them? I became rather puritanical and replied: Well they’re already visual poems, they don’t need any pictures. She looked a bit disappointed but we soldiered through our cake. I saw that this was a rubbish answer, and offered an idea about using black and white pattern to accompany the poems based on the guinea fowl continental old lady clothes my great granny used to wear… like fabric swatches? asked Aurea, brightening a bit.
A couple of weeks later I went to see Rebecca Nicolson, the other half of Short Books. I showed her the things I’d been doing over the years and we talked business. She too rather insisted that the putative book should have pictures. I loved how she and Aurea had obviously conferred and got me in a pincer movement. When you decide how you’re going to illustrate it, just let us know, she smiled, firm but fair.
Luckily I awoke the next morning to a dream in which the words ‘cut out domestic objects’ were floating in large black cut out letters in front of me. ‘That’s it! I thought. No pictures of people, just hatstands and colanders: the stuff of an ordinary (displaced, European ) life in the London suburbs in the twentieth century.
I started by cutting out a bread basket and a loaf of rye bread.
Then I remembered some scratchy upholstered chairs and the standard lamp. I gradually got used to memorys half light, and cautiously wandered around that interior that had been so familiar to me as a child, amazed to notice the house plants, bedspreads, side tables… I could feel the breeze filling out the gauzy curtains as ghosts came and went, benign and oblivious. The picture below was my first attempt to catch this. Later I developed a version of how I imagined their former apartment in Berlin, in its just left emptiness.
We used that as sekschon header for Ze After Leif – (I always like the pun inherent in ‘curtains’.)
We all had to work as fast as possible to get the book out by this years National Poetry Day, so that we could harness that annual gust to push its small craft out from the harbour of obscurity!
My editor, William Pimlott, the one who’d been so good at reading the poems from the first email, who is half my age and twice as clever, made several useful suggestions. He’s a Yiddish speaking gentile and knows a lot more about Jewishness than I do. We’d meet with Aurea and Rebecca and the designer Georgia Vaux, and have long but whizzy meetings to work out the title, the cover, typefaces, images. Here are some earlier versions!
I wrote some extra poems to help fill out some of the gaps in the story, enjoying a chance to meet with some less familiar cousins, who kindly shared their stories, again over pastries. Of course I’ve made free with these as well, and can only offer poppy seed apologies for what may seem to be frenkly, a Vepp off Lyze, in which something recognisable may lurk.
We tried to get the spelling consistent, and we argued over the order and what went into each Sekschon. It was an extremely fun and funny process.
Although I’ve been writing these poems for some years, only a few months have passed since Aurea first came round, and I am so surprised to see the book out, and already in Waterstones and Hatchards.
A proper hardback, set with crisp modernist type and my brand new papercuts, it’s a dream: bringing my modest and determinedly ordinary grandmother back to the city we loved and shared.
The Sunday following the books publication I was delighted to get this lovely review in The Observer.
Come and hear some of the poems, and celebrate with me on November 15th at The Poetry Café 7pm with a reading at 8pm.